The fish-egg tree is no longer there. But who cares about a fish-egg tree? And who cares about him? His name is Moi, it's both his first name and his last name, and it's also his home and homeland. He is Moi. Jack Miller has never been anybody.
Yes, call out to him so that he's someone recognizable, someone having a past. So that all the chaos waking him every night is not merely nightmare and the dim figure in his dreams luring him back here is not just illusion.
Call out to me! Why do you only stare, folks?
He looks at the adults and children gathered around him and suddenly feels frightened. It might all have been a lie, this past of his. But, no, how could all of it have been just a dream? Evening Market Alley, the fish-egg tree, Sister Hanh, Brother Beo--all of its stories imagined by a guy who is really Nobody? The looks he's receiving express just one thing: curiosity. Who is this black boy? Why is he here?
If he stands here long enough, a policeman might start to question him.
He walks away, his black face showing bewilderment. Two little boys rush into their house, shutting the door behind them. He is not hurt anymore by such reactions. At the moment he is floating in an unreal world, asking himself a question that is of no real importance at all: Who is he?
He keeps going, like a sleepwalker. Is the call he hears only in his imagination--the name and home he only made up?
He stops and stares at the young man running toward him.
Ah ha, it really is you? Yes, it is! And it's me. You! Me!
"Beo, you still recognize me?"
Beo punches his shoulders, wipes away his tears. They embrace and walk down the alley together. People open doors to look at them. A woman says: "Just imagine! It turns out to be Moi."
Her child says, "What is Moi?"
Moi first appeared at Evening Market Alley sometime in the early 1970s. He and Beo began collecting the rotten vegetables Mrs. Bay threw away after market. They were both parentless and homeless. There were lots like them during the war.
In the afternoons they climbed the fish-egg tree, plucking its fruit for their lunch, then napping on the branches like monkeys. The fish-egg tree was in front of Sister Hanh's house. Sister Hanh was just a schoolgirl then, the only girl from the Alley in high school. The others had all quit school to become baby-sitters or domestic cleaners or clerks, until they got married.
When there was a wedding in the Alley, both adults and children gathered to share the newlyweds' happiness. Hanh would stand near the fish-egg tree, watching the bride in her rose-colored wedding dress shyly climb into the flower-strewn car. A romantic notion took root in Hanh's mind: One day a gentleman would come to ask for her hand, spirit her away from that winding dirty muddy alley, and take her to a place bright with happiness. She couldn't imagine what that man would look like, but she was sure he would be a genuine gentleman. She kept herself pretty and virginal in order to be worthy of such a man's love.
The bride was gone, and the people returned to their boring jobs. Beo and Moi collected the unexploded firecrackers to play with beneath the fish-egg tree.
"The bride and groom must have gone to the restaurant."
"No, they are going straight to the bridal chamber."
"You don't know anything. First they have to kowtow to the ancestral altar."
"Well, one day I'll get married myself."
Hanh can't help bursting into laughter when she hears this debate. She's doing homework at her table by the window. The boys look up at her. They love Hanh better than anyone else in the Alley. She sometimes gives them food and always smiles at them. This means a lot to two street boys, one of them black, who live on rubbish.
"Sister Hanh, when will you get married?"
Hanh's cheeks burn with embarrassment, but the boys keep up their questioning:
"Will the groom arrive in a deluxe car?"
"And all your friends and relatives will be treated at the Grand Restaurant, won't they?"
"I wish I could be in the wedding party."
Something is smoldering in Hanh's heart. She says, "You will both be invited to my wedding party."
"At the Grand Restaurant?"
"But the guard won't let us in."
"You'll have my wedding invitation to show them."
"You promise, Sister Hanh? You promise you'll send us your wedding invitation?"
Beo has a pretty good business now at a corner of the crossroads not far from the Alley. He started out with bicycle repairs, later he managed to repair motorbikes, and now he can even renovate second-hand Hondas. Beo is as black as Moi because he stays out in the sun all day. The corner is his workshop as well as his home. But a streetcorner has no address. And, after Moi left for the USA, neither he nor Beo could read or write well enough to send letters to each other, so there has been no contact between them since.
Beo takes Moi to his "home." A small crowd has gathered there. Beo introduces his friend.
"My wife. My kids. Do you still speak Vietnamese?"
Beo laughs and declares in a loud voice: "This is my best friend, Jack Miller, American!"
The crowd regards Beo with awe, and Beo looks around at his neighbors proudly: Che, a barber whose shop is just a chair and a mirror hung from a tree trunk; Su who sells used clothes on the sidewalk; Thap the fruit vendor. Kim Thoa sells cigarettes, old Chanh sells balloons, and their children sell lottery tickets or polish shoes or scavenge rubbish. They are all very honored to meet Moi. Once in a while they see foreigners in their huge shoes passing by this muddy corner. Their self-respect prompts them to make themselves as invisible as possible to avoid being turned into tourist snapshots of colorful foreign poverty.
But all of a sudden a foreigner, an American, comes and sits among them, a living embodiment of all the myths they've ever heard about America.
"Jack, where do you live? In New York or California? Is your house a one-hundred-story building?"
"What do you do in America, Jack? You must be very rich. Ky from our Alley is only a dishwasher in America, but he has dollars to send home every month."
"Jack, where are you staying? In a hotel? Fifty dollars a night? Wow, that can feed us for a whole month!"
Everyone looks at the American visitor with admiration.
"You come back here, stay in a hotel, eat in a restaurant, you're lucky, Jack!"
He asks them to call him Moi, but everyone objects. They want their friend to be Jack Miller--American. They've had enough of Su, Che, Beo. Who needs another Moi?
Beo's four-year-old says, "Uncle Jack, please take me to your hotel to see the soft bed."
The other kids noisily ask to go too. They want to pass through the automatic glass door.
Moi looks down at them with tears in his eyes.
"Then, we're off to the restaurant."
"Are we invited too?"
"Yes. All of you are invited."
"Five-star restaurant, Uncle Jack?"
The whole corner is stirred up with excitement. Moi watches it all with a sad smile on his dark face.
The two rubbish boys Moi and Beo waited for the day they would get to eat at the Grand Restaurant. They longed as much as Hanh for the man who would come to make her a bride. At last he appeared: a gentleman with a good job, a senior-high-school teacher. Every time he came to take Hanh out on his Vespa, the children stood on both sides of the alley staring at their pretty virgin sister. She always smiled at them when they waved their dirty hands in greeting. Then they dived back into their dream in the narrow alley.
"He's quite handsome."
"And he loves Sister Hanh very much."
"He will marry Hanh and hold a party at the Grand Restaurant."
"And send us their wedding invitation."
But when would the wedding be? His parents came to see Hanh's parents. The wedding date was arranged. And the prospective bride and groom were making arrangements about the nuptial party.
Hanh said, "We're inviting Aunt Phuong, Uncle Tin, Beo, Moi..."
"Who are Beo and Moi?"
Hanh explained with her charming smile. Her fiancé stared back at her doubtfully, not knowing whether she was joking or going mad. But it was not a joking matter. He crossed the two boys' names off the list.
"My guests are respected people in society. What would they think if they were seated next to those rubbish boys?"
Hanh's voice was soft but not less decisive.
"If there were only two guests at my wedding, I would prefer that they be those two boys."
"You are mad."
"Those boys are the only ones who really want me to be happy."
"What about me? Don't I want to bring you happiness?"
"Then, please give me the pleasure of seeing those children treated as well as our other guests."
She might indeed have been crazy. There were quarrels then every time they met. And always over the two rubbish boys! Beo and Moi didn't know anything about it. They were busy saving money to buy a silk doll for her wedding gift.
The five-star restaurant is crowded this evening. Mr. Miller hasn't booked a table in advance, so there is no room for his party. No problem, though. They rush off to a floating restaurant illuminated by colored lights. The waiters are dressed neatly in white and wait on them politely and patiently. These strange customers noisily demand a second menu. The waiter brings it. Beo and his son excitedly study the bill of fare, but it's the same. Beo's wife proclaims without a glance at either menu:
"I want chicken."
Kim Thoa prefers roast dove, then discovers seafood. Wow, there are swallow's nests too. Drinks? Of course, cola. No, I'd like fresh orange juice. They have imported wine? Fantastic!
The children jump up and down on their seats, screw their heads in all directions, stare at the customers at other tables. When the restaurant begins to slowly float down the Saigon river, the children all stand up on their chairs to see the brightly flickering lights of the hotels and restaurants on the riverbank. They embrace each other in glee, then turn to look at the other side of the river, trying to pick out of the landscape their Evening Market Alley. Then, along with the other customers, they cheer, drink and eat and shout and throw full cans of beer into the river.
When the ferry returns to its dock, the whole gang staggers out onto Nguyen Hue Boulevard, singing and laughing. They pay no attention to the angry glances of people on the street. Kim Thoa leans against Moi, her breast pressing hard against his arm. She sings all the way to the hotel. Once inside, the children immediately jump up and down on the bed and fight one another for the pillows. Then they race into the bathroom, turn on the hot water, climb into the bathtub and begin carrying on so noisily that the hotel maid comes round to complain.
At last Beo has to ask the children to go home. But go home where, they say? The corner at the Evening Market Alley?
"Please, Uncle Jack, let us stay here just for one night. I'll sleep on the floor by the foot of your bed," Beo's son begs.
Moi looks at them with moist eyes. His expression is always dull, half pain, half pity. Beo shoos all the children out to the elevator and says good night to Moi.
When Moi comes back to his room he finds Kim Thoa lying naked on the bed. A smell of some cheap, pungent perfume fills the air. She whispers, "Make love to me, Jack."
He laughs a quiet, ironic laugh. Kin Thoa repeats it again, this time more urgently: "Jack, love me."
He's no longer laughing, but stands watching her with his dark, expressionless face.
"Jack, do you look down on me?"
Jack collapses onto the bed like a puppet whose strings have been dropped.
"Why should I look down on you? We share the same fate. In America, I'm just a black boy, with no home, no parents, no education, no job, no future, nothing at all. I came back here to look for my childhood dream. I like you very much, Thoa. But I've already spent my last dollar."
Kim Thoa lies motionless, but her body is on fire with the wine in her blood. She looks in awe at the flowery curtains on the windows. The pink lamp shade on the bedside table, the pot of roses on top of the TV set, the fridge, the paintings on the wall--they're all exactly as in her dream. She takes Moi's hand. "Jack, don't make me stand in the street tonight. All my life I've dreamed of lying in the bed of a gentleman."
Moi touches her dark hair, then her cheek. "Then, sleep well," he says.
He closes his own eyes. Inside his head he sees the figures of a little black boy and his friend Beo--two rubbish boys of Evening Market Alley. After picking the fish-egg fruit for their lunch, they take a nap on its branches like two monkeys. The noise of a Vespa screaming out of the alley wakes them. They get down from the tree and crawl over to the window of Hanh's house. Sister Hanh is sitting inside, her head buried in her arms on top of the table where she does her home work, her face hidden by her long black hair.
The boys ask in almost a whisper, "Sister Hanh? When will your wedding be?"
Hanh looks up and pushes back her hair. Her eyes are red, but she manages to produce a smile on her pale face. She reaches out and places one hand on Beo's cheek and the other on Moi's.
"I don't know. But you both are sure to have an invitation when I do."
(Ly Lan <firstname.lastname@example.org> was born in Binh Duong, grew up in Sai Gon, graduated from the University of Hochiminh City and now does teaching, writing and translating.)